Abortion foes abandon middle ground, head for the fringes

March 17, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Emergency contraception is the no-brainer in the abortion controversy. If taken soon enough, it can prevent 80 percent of unwanted pregnancies. Anyone looking to reduce the number of abortions should agree on reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies.

There is still no peep from the Food and Drug Administration on putting Plan B, the after-the-act contraceptive, on the drugstore shelf. Still no Plan C, if C stands for the ever-elusive common ground.

It's no secret that there's a solid anti-abortion majority in the Congress. We have an opponent in the White House. We even have a new senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, who believes in the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions.

Ever since the election was mislabeled as a vote for values, abortion-rights advocates have been told to move toward the middle ground. But how far does the anti-abortion movement have to go before we notice that they've fled that territory for the furthest edge of the public domain?

While Plan B has languished, the opponents have pushed their plans.

In Kansas, an ambitious attorney general, Phill Kline, wants to rifle through the names, sexual histories and medical records of 90 women who had late-term abortions. He justifies this on the flimsy grounds that he's just looking for the victims of child rape.

In Wisconsin, there's the case of the pharmacist who refused to give a young woman the birth control pills prescribed by her doctor. The licensing board will have to choose between his conscience and her contraceptives.

In South Dakota, the legislature became the most recent body to pass a "trigger law" saying that if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, the only legal abortion would be to save the life of a pregnant woman. No exceptions for rape or incest.

Is the pro-life movement only tagged as extremist when someone kills a doctor? Or have their leaders fallen in love with their own press clippings and begun to overreach?

In a column eight weeks ago on Plan B, I reminded the FDA that the place where those who want abortion to be "safe, legal and rare" meet those who want to end abortion is and ought to be birth control.

While I've been in the waiting room, a new report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute says that public-funded family planning has gone down in 27 states, forcing clinics to turn away four out of 10 women who need subsidized contraception. The Bush budget has proposed cutting Medicaid funding further, while Congress is fixated on making it a crime to take a minor across state lines for an abortion.

Which is the better way to reduce abortions, by prosecution or prevention? After years of playing defense, NARAL Pro-Choice America has gone on the offense. In a recent ad, the group challenged opponents to join it in decreasing abortions by increasing access to birth control.

At the same time, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, an abortion-rights opponent, has introduced a model bill for the pro-life/pro-choice/pro-contraception middle. The Prevention First Act would more than double federal money for family planning clinics, require private health plans to cover prescription contraceptives and force abstinence-only education programs to be accurate when they describe contraceptives.

This bill has been greeted with the sound of one party clapping.

Still think the Democrats are too beholden to the pro-choice left? We're seeing a Republican Party beholden to the anti-birth-control right. Plan A, B, C? One side wants to prevent unwanted pregnancies, the other to punish them. Who holds the title to the middle ground now?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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